President Calderon announces opening of bids for Punta Colonet Mega Port Project

Punto Colonet Mega Container port in Baja California
Punto Colonet Mega Container port in Baja California

ENSENADA – Traveling to a remote coastal community 150 miles from the U.S. border yesterday, President Felipe Calderón formally announced the bidding for Mexico’s $5 billion rail-and-seaport project at Punta Colonet.

Billed as the most ambitious infrastructure project of Calderón’s administration, the port would open a new trans-Pacific route for Asian products headed to the American heartland. It would capture some of the trade that now heads to ports at Long Beach and Los Angeles, which both face congestion.

The Punta Colonet container ship project “is one of those that truly transforms and revolutionizes the productivity of the country,” Calderón said in a speech at the port of Ensenada after his visit to Punta Colonet, a rural area with about 3,500 residents.

Mexico’s federal Secretariat of Communications and Transportation is expected to publish the bid specifications next week. The winning bidder, to be announced in 2009, would receive a 45-year concession to operate the port and rail line to the U.S. border.

The port would open with a capacity for 2 million shipping containers but its capacity would triple within 15 years, Secretary Luis Téllez said. Mexican officials yesterday gave diverging startup dates, from 2012 to 2014.

The project would entail not only a new port, but also a new rail line and a new U.S. border crossing, Téllez said. It involves planning for a community of 200,000 residents at Punta Colonet, and will require a number of spinoff projects, such as new roads and a desalination plant.

Mexican officials are proposing four possible locations for a border crossing to connect to U.S. railroads: through Mexicali; Yuma, Arizona; the twin border communities of Nogales; and outside Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas.

The $5 billion investment in Punta Colonet would rival the sum being spent to double the capacity of the Panama Canal, Téllez said. Some have said the canal’s expansion would divert crucial trade from Puerto Colonet, harming its possibilities; but Téllez touted the proposed Baja California port’s location as key to its success.

Ernesto Ruffo, a former Baja California governor, said he knows of at least three groups that are preparing to submit proposals for the project, which has been four years in the planning.

Ruffo is a consultant to one of the groups; he said he could not disclose its name, but Baja California businessman Roberto Curiel Amaya is one of the consortium’s participants.

Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim is expected to participate in one of the groups.

The project “will become an economic engine for Mexico,” Ruffo said.

At one point, Nebraska-based Union Pacific Railroad and Hutchison Port Holdings, a Chinese port conglomerate, were considered the leading contenders to build the port. The partnership dissolved last year.

Zoe Richmond, a spokeswoman for Union Pacific, said yesterday that it was unlikely that the company would join in the bidding process. “It is a project that we’re monitoring,” she said. “This has been such a long process, and so many different things have happened, who’s to tell what might happen in the future.”

Among those looking on yesterday was Tamotsu Yamada of the Japanese company, Mitsui de Mexico. He said the company would review the bid specifications before deciding whether to move forward: “We have done investment in this country, and looking for more, but it must be feasible.”

Mexican officials predict the project would generate more than 80,000 jobs in a largely rural area. It would “transform the southern part of Baja California into a more productive and prosperous region,” Calderón said.

Jesús Lara, a spokesman for several communal groups in Punta Colonet, said the project will be welcomed by the area’s residents, who depend largely on agriculture and ranching.

“It will bring services that will raise the quality of life in the region,” Lara said in a telephone interview. “Our reaction is one of jubilation, knowing that this project is finally moving forward.”